German elections: weak victors and strong left

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The results of September's general election in Germany are contradictory. It brought to power a right wing combination of a conservative-liberal government.

But this doesn't represent a rightward shift in German society. The conservatives of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) had their worst showing since the Second World War, and the conservative-liberal camp actually lost a total of 300,000 votes.

The coalition climbed to power on the heap of a collapsed social democracy. The losses of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) are dramatic. Support for the SPD has halved since 1998. This is a legacy of the so-called Agenda 2010 reforms - a general attack on the welfare state started by SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder and furthered by his successors.

The coalition of the CDU and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) won despite the majority of the population rejecting their core projects. For example 77 percent of people are for a legally enshrined minimum wage, which the new government rejects; 61 percent want a shift away from nuclear energy, while the government wants to give nuclear bosses a longer running time for their plants; 55 percent are for an immediate military withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the government wants to send more troops.

The new government is all too aware of the unstable ground on which it stands. It announced that it will correct "social injustices" brought about by the SPD - chancellor Angela Merkel is doing her utmost to give the impression that she will not cut social standards.

But attacks will come. State debt soared after the banks were bailed out. The government pledged to reduce the debt fast, but at the same time they want to start their term with a €20 billion tax break, presumably for their business buddies. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that they will try to get the money from the working class.

But Germany's party of the radical left, Die Linke, was one of the winners in the election. Results across the entire former West improved, while in the former East 16 candidates were directly elected - 13 more than in 2005.

Die Linke's demands were aimed at workers, school and university students, pensioners and jobseekers. As a result, 56 percent of voters believe that Die Linke stands up for the socially disadvantaged. 18 percent of workers and 26 percent of all unemployed people voted for Die Linke.

Now the debate begins inside Die Linke about working in the new political environment. At the recent Die Linke leadership meeting Oskar Lafontaine outlined a double strategy for the fight against the CDU/FDP: firstly, to build on the ground side by side with trade unions and campaigns against CDU/FDP attacks; secondly, to prepare the way for an SPD/Die Linke/Green Party national government after the 2013 general election by engaging in similar state governments.

This strategy has two big problems. For starters, its two prongs do not complement one another, but rather one undermines the other. Resistance against the coming cuts and opposition on the streets are absolutely necessary. Die Linke can play an important role here because it is credible and has earned people's trust. This credibility would suffer massively through any government participation under the current fiscal conditions.

The capitalist crisis has meant a drastic slide in federal budget revenues. If in coalition, Die Linke would likely be involved in sharp attacks. This has already happened in Berlin, where the party rules together with the SPD, resulting in a drastic loss of support. In spite of that experience, talks between Die Linke and the SPD have begun in Brandenburg.

Secondly, it pins its hopes on a "reformed" SPD that will become a working partner for social policies in government. But past experiences offer the opposite picture. The SPD has often moved to the left in opposition, just as it did under the leadership of Oskar Lafontaine towards the latter part of CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl's term in 1995-98. But this was followed by the Schröder government's Agenda 2010 policies.

The political problems of the SPD lie deeper than a few bad individuals - all factions in the SPD believe that excessive profits form the basis of social welfare policies.

This leads to the sell-out of all manner of reformist policies. Under the given circumstances it is more likely for pigs to fly than for the SPD to make a sustained shift to the left.

The debates about Die Linke's trajectory will shape the political landscape on the left for years to come.